Dancing monkeys, talking dolphins, beer-retrieving falcons...sounds like another Super Bowl extravaganza. Except there was nothing really extra about it.
Even the best of ad land's Dr. Dolittle tricks did little to lend excitement to the game within the game. This year, the action was all on the field. The New England Patriots kept fans glued to the set to the very last minute of the game, with a tie-breaking field goal garnering the underdog the championship this year.
The surprising upset did give those last-minute, bargain-hunter Super Bowl advertisers -- relegated to the third and fourth-quarter ad slots -- more eyeballs than they paid for. Too bad there wasn't much to look at. In its second spot on the game, Taco Bell kept blabbering about their new steak quesadilla. Volkswagen ran a ho-hum spot from their Enhanced Turbo campaign. Roche vaguely spoke of a fight against the flu. And Charles Schwab brought chuckles with a repeat spot -- first aired after the coin toss -- in which Hank Aaron suggests Barry Bonds retire.
But one of the most controversial ads aired late in the game came from tax payers dollars, an anti-drug message sponsored by the White House in which drug use is equated with supporting terrorism. In it, confessional portraits of Americans are highlighted by jarring declarations. "I helped murder families in Colombia," says one young man. "I helped blow up buildings," says another. "Drug money supports terrorists," sums up the spot. "If you buy drugs, you might too."
It's a heavy-handed way to tell Americans that funding for terrorists plots often comes from the same networks operating the world's most massive drug enterprises. But an earlier spot, aired during the third quarter, made the same point more effectively using a MasterCard methodology: "Fake ID: $3,000." "Box Cutters: $2. "Where do terrorists get their money?" asks the spot. "Some of it might come from you."
The game was full of patriotic flare--even Bono showed off his red-white-and-blue during U2is half-time show -- but thankfully advertising's patriotic fervor showed more restraint, and taste, than the confused rush of early post-September 11th executions. Big brands didn't get in the way. A message of appreciation from New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, sponsored by Monster.com, was understated and heartfelt in black and white. The Budweiser Clydesdales' tribute to New York City in the form of a simple moment of silence and bow turned a potential disaster into a classic. Five months time and the beauty of the Clydesdales allowed Bud to pull it off.
Pepsi, a Super Bowl staple, played it safe this year with a 90-second musical number starring its hottest property, Britney Spears. The time-travel concept was as good use of her relationship with Pepsi as any, but last year's Spears song-and-dance number at least ended with an unexpected laugh thanks to an appearance from Bob Dole. This year it was just a trip down memory lane through the brand's advertising history with pop princess as tour guide. Later, Pepsi aired the 50s clip on its own, but added little nostalgic appeal.
Even the beloved E*Trade monkey disappointed this year. While it did manage to poke fun at the overblown hype surrounding Super Bowl advertising again by casting the monkey in a hokey musical number complete with a green-glittered tux, the joke lost steam in the second half of the commercial when the monkey was fired for making the "silliest ad in game history" and is sent to Florida for a new job in space travel. It would have played better with less CEO face time, a few quicker cuts, and perhaps aired as two separate executions with the conclusion airing later in the game.
Among the new efforts introduced on the game were new campaigns from Cadillac and AT&T Wireless. Cadillac relied on Led Zeppelin to lend energy to a desert race between a classic and the new Escalade, which was fine until the tag, "The legendary blood line is about to boil." Boil? Something about an overheating heap of metal just doesn't feel very inviting, or luxurious for that matter. AT&T Wireless provided the greatest huh? moments in the ad game, with three spots aired throughout the bowl that aimed to get viewers interested enough in "mlife" to learn more online, but only created apathetic confusion.
Overall, much of the advertising on the game this year felt more self-conscious than it has in the past. Perhaps advertising is still trying to find it's way, or Super Bowl advertising created for the Super Bowl is changing. It was good to see that Cliff Freeman and Partners hasn't toned down its often-shocking sense of humor with new ads for Quizno's that featured a marketer who would go to any lengths, even chop off a taste-tester's arm, to ensure taste test comparisons fall in his company's favor not Quizno's.
In addition to Pepsi, BBDO produced entertaining spots for Visa, with Kevin Bacon using his six degrees of separation to get around showing ID, and M&M's, with a charming spot in which hotel guest is treated to the obligatory chocolate-on-the-pillow with a surprising animated M&M, who instead keeps him awake. TBWA\Chiat\Day's final spot for Levi's, starring a man whose jeans give his legs a rhythm of their own, was one of it's best for the jeansmaker, albeit an idea that was also seen last year in the company's overseas marketing of Twisted jeans.
Anhueser-Busch was the clear Super Bowl ad champion this year by sticking to what it does best on the game, using nearly all of its five minutes of ad time to present humorous boy-tries-to-get-girl scenarios for Budweiser and Bud Light.
Some of the best were for Bud Light: a man ignores his girlfriend's romantic advances, including her black teddy and satin sheets, until she mentions Bud Light; comedian Cedric tries to help a friend get a date at a bar, but gets him a swift kick to the head instead; An apartment dweller uses a trained Falcon to impress and bring beer to the ladies. But the one that got the greatest laugh out of me was the first spot aired, a spoof on robot demolition competitions in which a sly mini-fridge that crushes a monster competitor by the product. No babes. No dumb date jokes. Just the beer.